: Criminal charges for debating the past (or the Leviathan's old habits)

18:59 Jul. 29, 2016

Criminal charges for debating the past (or the Leviathan's old habits)

Nicolas Fréret (1688-1749) Source: Wikipedia

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on new old trends in hunting for Frondeurs

This article is the second in a series of reviews focusing on the political interpretation of history. The issue becomes so urgent amidst an active dialogue between Poland and Ukraine with both countries trying to overcome evasions and resentment they both suffered following the tragic events in history. Also, the political interpretation of history is vital in terms of Crimea's annexation and its reflection in the political life of Russia and Ukraine. 

We'll begin by mentioning an incident, which, from the perspective of everyday life, may appear to be rather remote from our main story… 

It was at the very end of 1714, when an unpleasant misfortune fell upon a Frenchman by the name of Nicolas Freret (1688-1749), a writer and historian, who, in his early twenties, had been cheerfully admitted to the dignified ranks of respectable intellectuals. One wintry morning, he found himself arrested and subsequently thrown in the Bastille on the charge of plotting against the monarchy. For the next four months and five days, the young scholar remained a prisoner of the Crown, contemplating his fate and stoically reading Xenophon of Athens.


Trojan stories in the illustrations to the Grandes Chroniques de France, one of the pillars of French pre-modern historiography.

 The Chronicles written and continued for a few centuries by the monks from the Abbey of Saint-Denis laid the foundation for the medieval historical consciousness of the then "French". The said learned clerics (and many generations of their followers) presented the history of the Kingdom of France as a process, which had begun with the destruction of Troy by the Greeks. According to the plot of the Grandes Chroniques, the Trojans left their burning city and, after a great deal of wandering through Eastern Europe, moved toward the western edge of the continent. There (according to the tradition of Saint-Denis), they found a number of kingdoms, among whichFrance was the greatest. This thesis, of course, was not accepted by the elites of medievalEngland, who elaborated their own myth of Trojan descent – the one that gave birth to the whole phenomenon of Arthuriana.

(Source: Hedeman, Anne D. The Royal Image: Illustrations of the Grandes Chroniques de France, 1274-1422) 

In his paper entitled "On the Origin of the French and their Establishment in Gaul", Freret rejected this marvelous fable, promoting instead the Renaissance tradition of Humanist historiography. The latter categorically asserted that the Franks (seen as the founding fathers of the Kingdom of France) had purely Germanic roots and were not in any way connected to the Homeric civilization of Mediterranean Troy.


Engravings from an edition of 1711 – "Portraits des rois deFrancedepuis Pharamond jusqu'à Louis XIV" ("Portraits of the kings ofFrancesince Pharamond till Louis XIV"). (Source: Gallica - the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (gallica.bnf.fr))

The propaganda of the Bourbon dynasty sprang from the tradition of Saint-Denis, according to which the French monarchy had been founded by the legendary king Pharamond – a prince from the House of Troy. This book of portraits (printed just three years before Nicolas Freret's imprisonment) shows Pharamond as the first sovereign of France and Louis XIV (1638-1715) as his natural successor.

It was this collective genealogy of the kingdom, the ruling family, and the nation that Freret dared dismiss as a fabulous concoction. 

In his paper, entitled "On the Origin of the French and their Establishment in Gaul", Freret rejected this marvelous fable, promoting instead the Renaissance tradition of Humanist historiography. The latter categorically asserted that the Franks (seen as the founding fathers of theKingdomofFrance) had purely Germanic roots and were not in any way connected to the Homeric civilization of Mediterranean Troy.


"The Kings of France" of an earlier edition. (Source: Gallica - the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (gallica.bnf.fr))

Pharamond of the Trojan House is the first in this line of monarchs ending with the Sun King's farther Louis XIII (1601-1643). Henry IV (1553-1610), the first Bourbon on the French throne, and Henri III (1551-1589), the last Valoison the same seat, were eulogized in the identical manner – by richly engraved royal genealogies with the ancient sovereign Pharamond as the progenitor of the whole kingly race. Despite the Humanists' victories in the 16th century (and the fact that the French monarchs of the time usually patronized the members of the said school), the tradition begot by the Grandes Chroniques de France lived on.  

Very popular with modern historians, especially those who praised the self-sacrifice of their profession, the narrative of Freret's detention inside one of the most notorious prisons inEuropewas somewhat corrected by more inquisitive contemporary researchers. Their findings tell us that royal prosecutors, having apprehended the said academic luminary, attempted to build up a criminal case around his connection to the Jansenists – the members of a Catholic theological movement whose ideas did not seem very distant from the doctrines of Protestantism. The king's advisors, some of whom belonged to the influential Society of Jesus, persuaded increasingly sanctimonious Louis to eradicate "the heresy". Restraining a band of its most notable sympathizers, incautious enough in their eloquent rhetoric, was seen as a perfect way to perform the task. A couple of those very same Jesuit councillors happened to be the monarch's official historiographers, whom Nicolas Freret had wittingly criticized before. No wonder that they readily furnished the inquest with necessary testimonies on their critic's supposed mischief against the realm. Despite the fact that his anti-Trojan escapade did not appear among the formal arguments for the arrest, the aforementioned dissertation ("On the Origin of the French…") was added to the body of evidence against the unhappy detainee.


Another famous prisoner of the Bastille – M. de Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778) (Source: Gallica - the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (gallica.bnf.fr)) 

The end of this legal affair, however, proved that Freret was not entirely unlucky after all. At the beginning of the fifth month in the Bastille, he was suddenly released and allowed to return to his brilliant academic career – the scenario, which (one could argue) was far from being the worst. Many learned individuals, including the ones who chose to burden themselves with historical writing, faced exile, jail, or even death for their defiant (or sometimes mild) nonconformity. A considerable number of historians in our own day may be paying the same price – and that is the matter, which we'll address in some detail on a separate occasion… 

But now, let us take a look at an event that has recently happened inRussia.

In early June, the reports say, a young citizen of a Russian town Perm, was found guilty of reposting an article in his social media account. The text that can apparently lead one to a courtroom was titled "15 Facts about Bandera's Followers, or What the Kremlin Isn't Saying". Some Ukrainian nationalists, it argued, may have collaborated with the Nazis, but it was the Soviet Union that, in 1939, signed the infamous pact with Hitler's Germany. The article then proceeds with the fact that the two totalitarian monsters divided Poland and settled the issues concerning the remaining neighborhood.

Read more Radio Liberty: Russian grammar enthusiast questioned for 'Nazi' sympathies

The convicted man (named Vladimir Luzgin) was charged according to the new law of the Russian Federation – the one that criminalizes "any attempts" to "rehabilitate Nazism". Presenting the case, the prosecution made some vague references to the Nuremberg Tribunal and snubbed the defense by saying that the school-based historical knowledge of the accused "should have allowed him to see the falsehood of the messages he had disseminated". Luzgin was found guilty and fined 200,000 rubles (which is approximately a little more than three thousand US dollars).

Read more Latvia advises Putin to ‘look in the mirror' following ‘European Nazism' comments

Among the revealingly peculiar moments of the said trial was the testimony given against the young man by his father. Vladimir, according to Luzgin the Elder, had repeatedly criticized Moscow for its political line towards Ukraine. For many people, raised in the Soviet era, this episode may remind of the propagandist story about Pavlik Morozov. In the latter instance, of course, it was the boy who gave evidence of his father's wrongdoings against the Soviet State. Pavlik, according to the official version of events, was killed by his paternal relatives, which made him a Soviet hero and "a model for all the children of the USSR".   


Pavlik Morozov unmasks his father at the trial of the "People's court". A print in the newspaper "Pionerskaya Pravda" ("Pioneers' Truth"), 1932. (Source: Wikipedia) 

Well, what does the conviction of Vladimir Luzgin tell us?

Unlike Nicolas Freret, the poor Russian is not a historian. This commonPermdweller briefly touched a text mentioning the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. The signing of the aforementioned document has been a historical event known not only to the professional researches of World War II, but to the wider public as well. In the 1990s, it made a specifically popular theme throughout the so-called post-Soviet area. Documentaries, books, and even tabloids thoroughly illustrated the cooperation between the Soviet and the Nazi regimes. The analysis of this unholy alliance became an integral part of the historical curriculum at universities.

And now…


In 1939, the Western media produced innumerable cartoons satirizing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. (Source: Spartacus Educational (spartacus-educational.com)

May one assume that these pictures along with numerous books on the partnership between Stalin and Hitler are already outlawed inRussia? 

Now, the Russian stately Leviathan is telling its subjects a very simple thing. Common, people, he says, must not mess about historical questions and all that. The State will instruct them what to say and what to think. If the nation's leader says that the Pact of 1939 between the USSR and Germany was not a bad thing, that's the historical truth for the moment. If according to the official view the Soviet regime was never in cahoots with the Nazis, then everyone is to stand by this assertion. Should you have any doubts and read the unapproved suspicious articles (or, even worse, some academic scribbling), then the whole weight of the law is to be brought upon you. Being fined isn't the hardest punishment, but who would wish to try what is?

It seems that this is a reality, with which Russian society will have to live for an unpredictably long period of time. Common citizens are most likely to prefer abstaining from any troublesome deliberations, while professional historians, hardly willing to suffer even the lightest forms of chastisement, will prudently follow the Kremlin's lead. In Russia that happened before and everybody knows what to do.


A famous Soviet poster of 1941 saying "Keep mum!" or "Don't tattle!" It also says, "Be aware. These days, even walls have ears. Chatter and gossip are not very far from treason." (Source: Wikipedia)

At the time of WWII, western countries, let alone the Third Reich, had similar pieces of propaganda, but it seems that in today'sRussiathey may be put back to use.   

One could only hope that other parts of Eastern Europewill not follow this sinister example. Let us hope that those political decisions that concern the events of the past (like the recent resolution of the Polish Parliament) will not result in criminal charges against those who dare to debate historical matters.

Finally, let us all think of effective (and preferably institutionalized) ways to debar politicians from monopolizing history, especially when their populism in this domain brings about complications on an international scale.

Ph.D. Dmytro Ishchenko is a historian, policy analyst, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU (2002-2010).

More articles by this author:

 History and (in, for, as) Politics

Apologies for Historical Injustices and Other Ways for Reconciliation

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